June 27, 2012

The Mythic Disappearance of the Wage Gap

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney battle over acquiring the votes of US women, there have been repeated news reports about a “reverse gender gap.” This term refers to the growing rise of women out-earning their male spouses. During the late 80s, when the US government began tracking comparative earnings within couples, 23% of working wives’ salaries exceeded those of their husbands. The number is now close to 40%. In addition the wage gap has narrowed over the past decade: in 1999 women earned 77 cents to every man’s dollar, and now women earn 81 cents. While diminishing barriers to women’s active participation in the workplace and a smaller wage gap do herald greater prestige, earnings, power and opportunity for women, it is wise to hold the applause. (And to the student who wanted to know if the women’s movement is now questioning its need to exist, given this new information, I’ve got a two letter answer for you: n-o.)

While it is true that women have positioned themselves well by obtaining more degrees than men, women have principally made gains in healthcare and education, areas in which they have traditionally excelled. In fact, in a table of 500 categorized positions, one can find a large percentage of women in only 120 of them, showing that there is a long road to walk before celebrating.

Why is the wage gap decreasing? Not because the old boys’ network is eroding, nor because preconceptions about women’s lack of ambition are falling away, nor because on-site childcare or family-friendly corporate policies have convinced women that a satisfactory work/family balance is within reach. Instead, the wage gap is decreasing because of the recession. The economic shrinkage has had a deleterious effect on two male dominated industries: construction and manufacturing. As Liza Mundy states in her book The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, working class men have suffered the most from the failing economy. For instance, men are now finding far fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs.

As a resident of Wyoming, the U.S. state with the worst pay gap in the nation, 71 cents (similar to the national gap in 1988), I am keenly aware that occupational segregation is the leading factor in pay differentials between men and women. It takes only a high school degree, a willingness to work outside and get dirty, and some physical strength to obtain some of the best paying jobs in the state, working for the oil, natural gas and coal companies. Instead women working for these companies are nearly always found inside, behind desks, earning far less than the other workers. Local politicians frequently frame this as a choice, with comments along the lines of “Well, would your daughter want to be in charge of that heavy equipment?” This line of thinking justifies inaction. As Representative Cathy Connolly retorts, “What about investing in apprenticeship programs for young women” so that they have a chance to realize that they could thrive in this environment? In a Wyoming PBS Chronicles television program, Gender Wage Gap, Liz Nelson, a young female yard boss of an auto recycling yard suggests that her friends are too easily scared off – the nature of this work “is really not that hard.” On this same program,  a female head of a construction company, Kerry Anderson of Greybull, Wyoming, notes that some people refuse to allow her company to even bid for a job. She is deprived of a chance to compete. Of course, gender is not the sole influence in such cases. From her perspective, receiving business often depends on “where you are on Sunday mornings,” that is, on a specific Church affiliation, “and whether you are originally from Wyoming,” although only 60% of the state’s residents can trace their roots to this location.

Voices such as these should certainly cause us to be wary about celebrating a “reverse gender gap.” Indeed, I wanted to laugh at the recent Reach Advisory study of major U.S. cities, which shows that single childless women under 30 are making an average of 8% more money than their male same-age peers. So (gasp), women in their 20s without major household chores, partnerships to cultivate, and children to oversee are working extra hard, especially knowing that their time will likely be taken over by many of these activities when they are in their 30s? That is hardly news.

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